The early 19th-century American frontier on display in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” is a feral land without mercy or God. It’s an untamed wilderness of cruel storms, icy winds, rugged mountains and dangerous animals. It is the pitiless humans though that cause the greatest grief.
Teamed once more with the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose camera floats through this environment like an otherworldly spirit, Iñárritu shoots the harsh wilderness in icy blues and whites that send a sharp chill through your body just looking at the frozen landscape.
But the most chilling color is arterial red smeared over glistening snow, here, there and wherever humans or animals have been slaughtered.
Predators lurk everywhere. Wolves and bears among the animal kingdom while humans are either at each other’s throats or trust one another warily.
Some Native American tribes get along with Yankee frontiersmen while others wage vicious war against them yet will trade with French marauders. Women get kidnapped for brutal entertainment; men go after one another with sharp knives, arrows and guns; Indian villages are torched, its inhabitants slaughtered.
Iñárritu means for the viewer to swiftly acclimatize to this ruthless landscape. The film opens with a fur trapping expedition getting attacked by Indian warriors. Arrows rain down on cowering men, piercing necks, legs and backs while their rifles and pistols are largely ineffective, having to be reloaded after each shot.
Survivors escape on a river boat but fear that continuing up river would expose them to further attacks. Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, an expert tracker who knows the terrain better than any other, leads them overland in the direction of a distant fort.
Complaining about abandoning the river and then later precious pelts, John Fitzgerald, played by Tom Hardy, grouses about every decision Glass makes, his constant anger apparently stirred by the fact Glass is accompanied by a son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), a “half breed” in the vile nomenclature of the day.
That racial animosity, along with his half-crazed talk, no doubt owes much to a part of his scalp that’s missing. There’s only scar tissue to show for an assault long ago where his Indian attackers “took their good sweet time,” he muses, in relieving him of hair and scalp.
Leaving camp to scout for enemies, Glass accidentally comes between a mother grizzly and her cub and is rushed by the enraged animal just as he discharges his rifle. The bear viciously mauls him in a sequence of graphic detail, the bear’s breath even clouding the lens as the camera moves in to record the bone-cracking, flesh-ripping attack.
A few moments later, the bear comes back for more but this time Glass has a knife ready. Such are the extraordinary abilities of visual effects folks in today’s cinema the director is able to deliver this ultra-realistic scene in a single take.
Glass’ wounds are so severe no one expects him to survive except perhaps his distraught son. The company’s captain (Domhnall Gleeson) says he’ll pay two men to stay behind and tend to Glass until he dies, then give him a proper burial.
Wouldn’t you know it, Fitzgerald agrees to do so with a teenager, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Under the circumstances, you do wonder why the captain would agree to leave a horribly wounded man with a bitter enemy.
The movie’s story comes from one of the more incredible tales of the Old West, fodder for several books, TV shows and a couple of previous movies. This concerns the legendary Hugh Glass (1780-1833), who survived a bear attack in 1823 in present-day South Dakota and dragged himself, mutilated and alone, across more than 200 miles to the nearest American settlement.
The movie is based in part on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel, “The Revenant” (a term indicating a person who has returned, supposedly from the dead), which Iñárritu wrote with Mark L. Smith. This telling is designed though as a revenge melodrama by combining elements from the legend that are verifiably true with a considerable fictional underpinning.
That fiction has Glass accompanied by a teenage son he had with a Native American wife. (The real Hugh Glass is rumored to have lived among Pawnee Native Americans and may indeed have married into the tribe but history records no son.)
So there was no boy for Fitzgerald to murder — while Jim Bridger is absent — thus giving Glass his motive to survive for revenge. In truth, Glass has motive enough since Fitzgerald not only abandons him but robs him of his knife, rifle and other equipment.
Images appear to Glass — of his dead wife, slaughtered you gather by white soldiers; dreams about happier times with her and their son and then of unhappy times with the son minus his mother as he and his father make their way through hostile territory.
DiCaprio is game to be the movie’s punching bag, bouncing back after each episode with relentless obsession to breathe fully a last breath if it is indeed to be his last. (“Keep breathing,” his late wife tells him in her diaphanous appearances.) The actor’s face betrays no sense of fear he may not survive but rather mirrors a constant drive to move ever forward toward his goal.
Meanwhile Hardy, in a parallel subplot, makes a compelling psychopathic villain, getting his way by whatever means necessary from sly subterfuge and brute force to cagey intimidation. He too is a survivor, just not a nice one.
The back story comes to you fitfully and without always making much sense. What was Glass doing among the Indians for several years? How could he return to “civilization” after white soldiers murdered his wife?
There is much you don’t understand but the movie wants you to experience Glass’ ordeal at a visceral level, not an intellectual one.
So when the showdown comes, as the movie promises, the sequence feels unsatisfying, not like that in, say, Ethan and Joel Coen’s “True Grit,” where a young girl gets justice for a murdered father, but rather where two men you barely know, seeing them only in dire circumstances, are locked in a death struggle not unlike McTeague and Marcus in Death Valley at the climax of Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed.”
Not that the film lacks for human compassion. The love between father and son is palpable. An unusual friendship develops when Glass encounters a friendly Native American — Glass speaks the language easily — who helps save his life when the Indian tends his exposed back wounds with native medicine.
You also sense in the “magic realism” of his encounters with a wife encouraging him from beyond the grave the great love that existed between these two.
Another subplot intersects Glass’. An Indian war party is searching for a chief’s daughter, the same one that attacked Glass’ expedition. It chances that Glass is the one who discovers and must try to rescue her, a neat fiction that perhaps relies too much on coincidence.
There are sequences that astonish. Facing a night where weather might kill him and a newly dead horse beside him, Glass guts the animal, strips off his clothes and crawls inside the still warm carcass as protection against the freezing cold.
Indeed the entire film is a jaw-dropping excursion into arduous film production, where you can sense the actors, filmmakers and supporting personnel battling the elements to get these amazing shots. Originally setting up shop during winter in British Columbia, when the shoot got delayed and snow melted, the crew was forced to move to Argentina to finish the film.
As hermetically contained and artistically brilliant as “Birdman,” Iñárritu’s last dazzling film, was, “The Revenant” feels like a dare: can one venture into such wilderness and achieve such grim images?
Yes and yes but I wonder what the point is that Iñárritu sees as the movie’s take-away? The revenge angle feels hollow compared to the sheer audacity and determination of Glass’ epic struggle to survive.
The latter seems like a more triumphant human achievement than the obsessive desire to slaughter a fellow human no matter how great the wrong. So a powerful first act and extraordinary second is followed by a weak and overly clever third that leaves you feeling shitty.
The legend and lore of Hugh Glass make one proud to be a human being. What the revenant does when he returns though reminds you of how small-minded and venal humans, in dire situations, ultimately can be.
Opens: December 25, 2015; nationwide January 8, 2016 (20th Century Fox)
Production companies: 20th Century Fox and New Regency
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnail Gleeson, Will Poulter, Brendan Fletcher, Forrest Goodluck, Paul Anderson, Kristoffer Jones, Joshua Burge, Duane Howard
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Based in part on the novel by: Michael Punke
Screenwriters: Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mark L. Smith
Producers: Arnon, Milchan, Steve Golin, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Mary Parent, Keith Redmon, James Skotchdopole
Executive producers: James Packer, Jennifer Davisson, David Kanter, Brett Ratner
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Production designer: Jack Fisk
Music: Bryce Dessner, Carsten Nicolai, Ryuichi Sakamoto
Costume designer: Jacqueline West
Visual effects supervised: Rich McBride
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
R rating, 155 minutes